WHAT'S ERDOGAN'S HANG-UP WITH THE PALESTINIANS?
By Amikam Nachmani

Ha'aretz
http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/sp ages/1060816.html
Feb 2 2009
Israel

What moved Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to take up the
mantle as Israel's leading critic in the aftermath of Operation Cast
Lead? Is this a matter of a personal affront, in that Prime Minister
Ehud Olmert, who visited Ankara just days before the operation,
did not warn the Turks of what was to come?

Israel's former ambassador to Ankara, Zvi Elpeleg, once cautioned that
Turkey is about as sensitive about the Palestinian issue as it is about
the Armenian issue. Millions of people in Turkey take no interest in
what is happening beyond their borders, with one exception: Palestine.

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Turkish concerns for the Palestinians are deeply rooted. Their
misery, say the Turks, began during the Ottoman era of sovereignty
in Palestine. The Ottomans allowed the start of Jewish settlement
in the country. The Ottomans also viewed the Palestinians as some
of their most loyal subjects. They enlisted in the imperial army,
fought in combat, became high-ranking officers, received citations of
bravery from the sultan, married Turkish women, and, most importantly,
hoped to keep the Ottoman Empire intact so they could put into practice
Arab nationalism under its umbrella.

During the recent crisis in Gaza, the Turkish press often focused
on the passivity of the Arab regimes in light of the events, while
contrasting it with Turkey's spirited efforts. "Does the apathy
of the Arab regimes stem from the fact that we, the Ottoman Turks,
ruled Palestine for a longer period of time than the Arabs?" asked
one Turkish newspaper.

The start of the crisis looked promising from Turkey's standpoint
because in the last year it has been prominent as a go-between
for Israel and Syria. Gaza is regarded as naturally suited for
Turkish mediation, given that Egypt has been strongly criticized
by Hamas. "Neo-Ottomanism" and "the Golden Age," Turkish newspapers
enthused about the country's elevated standing. But then something
ruined the picture and the blame fell on Israel. Syria announced the
suspension of negotiations with Israel, adding further to Erdogan's
insult in the wake of Olmert's visit. "I am a descendant of the Ottoman
Empire that granted refuge to your forefathers who were expelled from
Spain; when you suffered we stood by your side," he protested. The
task of mediation was ultimately won by Egypt, not Turkey, which only
added to the insult.

>From Israel's vantage point, the greatest danger is pushing Turkey
into the arms of the "reverse periphery alliance" with Iran. In the
1950s and '60s, our region featured a mysterious alliance of actors who
shared the common denominator of being non-Arabs and hostility toward
Moscow. Over time, this group included Turkey, Iran, Israel, Ethiopia,
the Kurds in Iraq, the Christians in Lebanon and the Christians in
Sudan. It would be best if we could avoid the formation of a new
alliance with Turkey and Iran as the central figures, whose uniting
factor would be hostility toward Israel. Relations between Ankara
and Tehran are as good as ever, trade between them is burgeoning,
and Turkey is not particularly worried about Iran's nuclear program.

It is worth noting, though, that alongside his stinging remarks,
Erdogan rebuffed opposition calls to sever diplomatic ties with Israel,
and he made clear that Turkey's foreign relations "are not emotional"
but are conducted with reason. "Dear friends, we are not running a
supermarket here, we are running the Republic of Turkey," he said.

A close relationship with Turkey is of supreme importance to Israel. We
must not quarrel with Erdogan. Instead, we need to find a way to
blunt the crisis and repair ties. This will be an urgent mission for
the new government in Jerusalem.

The writer teaches in the Political Science Department at Bar-Ilan
University and is a senior researcher at the university's Begin-Sadat
Center for Strategic Studies.